Limbo

Some things that used to be important no longer seem to matter.


image above from Gustave Doré’s illustration of Dante’s Inferno, in the public domain per wikimedia

The word limbo has a (convoluted) religious meaning, but I mean it here in its colloquial and etymological sense of being in no-one’s-land, caught between two places or forces. The image above, from the canto on the Virtuous Pagans, who are “punished only in that they are separated from divine love”, pretty much captures how I mean it.

Limbo is not a spiritual place.

It is hard to overestimate how a dramatic shift in your worldview messes with your mind, and colours everything you think, do, and believe. This is especially challenging when this new worldview differs sharply both from what you actually perceive to be true, and what everyone around you both perceives and presumes to be true.

So when my growing appreciation of how complex systems work persuaded me that all attempts to reform or sustain our industrial civilization were doomed to failure, and that this civilization will slowly unravel over the coming decades, with staggering consequences, I hardly dared share this new understanding with others. I was sure they would see this belief as nihilistic, unwarranted and unsubstantiated pessimism, and many did, and do. Aside from pointing to my reading list, I can’t even explain exactly how I came to this realization, which is in any case unprovable. It just makes sense to me, now, based on everything I’ve read and studied, hours of internal debate, and the weight of evidence available. It’s intuitive more than anything else. I don’t want to believe it, but I do.

That puts me in a kind of limbo when I’m talking with people who are embarking on or in the midst of long-term careers, or raising children, or involved in direct action to try to reform civilization’s systems — in short, anyone who’s invested in civilization’s continuance or improvement, including me. I often review friends’ business plans, as if I believed any new business has a long-term future. I talk to my kids about day-to-day matters, ignoring the elephant in the room. I encourage and celebrate the champions of change who are trying to make this world a better place. But somehow, from this limbo, it all rings hollow now.

So my latest realization, that there really is no ‘me’ or ‘you’, or any separate anyone or anything, and hence no self or mind or soul or free will or control or choice or purpose or meaning or responsibility or time or space or death of anyone, magnifies this cognitive dissonance many-fold. It is even less provable, even more out of alignment with my actual perceptions and with the worldview of everyone around me. I certainly seem to exist as a separate being with free will, yet I somehow now know I am not. Everything I think, now, everything I do, every old belief or idea I catch myself still acting as if it were true, is empty, meaningless, even preposterous. A modern-day Virtuous Pagan, I wander around in a fog behaving as if I still believed in a future for this planet only modestly different from how it is today, and as if I still believed I exist and have control over this strange body I always thought I inhabited. Living in limbo.

I am not complaining. As Dante explained, Limbo is not a half-bad place to be. It offers certain bragging rights, if only to myself. It’s pretty easy, quite peaceful, and surprisingly joyful. The cognitive dissonance is annoying, but hardly excruciating.

Probably what is most troubling about this particular limbo is that a lot of things that used to really matter to me, don’t seem to matter much anymore. Here are some of them:

  • Getting things accomplished. There is no me to accomplish anything. My character is going to do, or not do, the one precise thing it is inclined to do or not do each moment. I have no say in the matter. Things will be accomplished or they won’t.
  • What people think of me. There is no they either, and hence they have no choice in what they think, nor can I choose to change their perception of me.
  • The news, even in rare cases when it’s actionable. All events are just appearances in illusory time. A play that the players are reading and acting out, unrehearsed, from a script they had no part in writing.
  • People’s (and my own) successes, failures, advances, setbacks, ideas, feelings, fears, and futures. It’s not that I don’t care about them: I certainly don’t want them to be unhappy, or to suffer. I can be loving, kind, compassionate, and feel joy at their joy, and at the same time be equanimous about what apparently happens being the only thing that could have happened, and it not happening to any one anyway. Formed by its embodied and enculturated nature, this character may well try to do things to seemingly make others (and my self) feel better or do better, but these apparent actions have nothing to do with me.

Limbo is neither in, nor awakened from, the illusory dream of the self. It’s the demi-monde, the in-between, the empty pause, the eternal place of waiting by no one for no thing.

The non-existence of the self is the only thing that makes sense, or that, in hindsight, has ever really made sense. From early childhood there have been brief, astonishing glimpses of what was then obviously really real, moments of wonder and pure unseparated being when I disappeared. And from early childhood there has been this feeling, this intuition that what’s here in the world that everybody calls real, isn’t quite right, doesn’t ring true, can’t possibly be real. That intuition, I know finally, was right. But knowing that offers no solace.

There is no path from limbo to anywhere else.

To everyone I know and touch, I’m sorry I can’t be fully with you, if I ever was, in this seemingly real world filled with so much dissatisfaction, longing, suffering, anger, fear and sorrow (and some fleeting moments of joy). I am no longer quite in this world. I seemingly do what I can, the only thing I can do, waiting without hope for the other, truer world that no one here seems to know about, to have glimpsed, or to remember.

I remember it, and when/if I suddenly disappear nothing will really change, and you won’t notice a difference; you won’t miss me. The character known as Dave will continue to read his lines and play his part. But there will likely be a little less self-ishness, a little less personal suffering. A little shift out of limbo, to nothing and everything.

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10 Responses to Limbo

  1. Philip says:

    wondering if I can resist a comment ?? I get where you are coming from..I feel a similar sort of limbo. How do you know when you have surrendered? When you don’t have to ask the question. It is hard to let go of the relationship you have with yourself….and I see that in your posts.
    I get a lot out of exploring the five kleshas and come back to them on a regular basis (someone unexpected the other day explained the equivalent in terms of Christianity- interesting). The fifth- Clinging to life is the most difficult but I can kind of comprehend this obstacle. Partly due to following your blog pretty much since you began. The ego fears death more than it’s nagging sense of lack. Loved ones “cling” harder than my own exit. The third (pleasure) is the one I’m working on the most. We have to forgive all around us for they don’t know what they do (bloody Pollard’s law)- we are all subject to the first Klesha- ignorance.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cRdc01xbT3I this may interest you.

  2. Philip says:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1HMYIJRpjio

    at about 16mins…. “you can be in the world, but not of it “- similar to what you are saying above. I realise you state limbo is not a spiritual place (but….) Talks about five kleshas a little earlier.

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks Philip. You’ve been sharing ideas through this blog’s comments since 2008, and all of them have been useful and important. Rupert was an important step in my search to understand the true nature of reality, and he’s quite articulate, but both he and Deepak have created this (to me, now) convoluted theory of reality that reminds me of the complicated medieval models of circles around circles that allowed ‘scientists’ and ‘teachers’ to continue to believe that the Earth was the centre of the universe. Their teaching seems all about awareness and consciousness and the veneration of the (‘true’, not egoic) Self. But radical non-duality argues that the presumption of consciousness or awareness (of what? by what?) and the existence of the (separate) Self are inherently dualistic. Tony argues that awareness and (self-)consciousness are what actually creates and sustains the illusion of the separate self and the existence of time, space and ‘apart-ness’. My limbo is primarily that empty place, between the perception of what everyone I know seems to accept as real, where ‘I’ still live, and the remembered reality that has no ‘space’ for any ‘one’ in it, that I somehow know is the real thing.

  4. Philip says:

    Then maybe radical non-duality is not so different to John Gray’s take at the end of his last book- the soul of the marionette. quote; “why try to escape from yourself? accepting the fact of unknowing makes possible an inner freedom. If you have this negative capability, you will not want a higher form of consciousness; your ordinary mind will give you all you need. Rather than trying to impose sense on your life, you will be content to let meaning come and go”. Different trains of thought can lead to similar places. Rupert and Chopra still offer some meaning that can come and go. Some how we need to find some contentment or peace as we watch the “end of the world”.

  5. Don Stewart says:

    toddlers and the development of an ego boundary

    From Robert Sapolsky’s book Behave, page 177:
    ‘An early stage occurs when toddlers form ego boundaries–‘The is a ‘me’, separate from everyone else. A lack of ego boundaries is shown when a toddler isn’t all that solid on where he ends and Mommy starts–she’s cut her finger, and he claims his finger hurts.’

    But the ego boundary stage definitely does not mean that ‘me’ is separated from ‘the world’. For example, page 219:
    ‘Most important, stressed mothers secrete glucocorticoids, which enter fetal circulation and basically have the same bad consequences as in stressed infants and children.’

    and page 207:
    ‘Baboon mothers teach their young appropriate behavioral context; human parents teach their young what to bother dreaming about.’

    Those who are trying to recover the very early stage before the Ego Boundary seem to me to be fighting against evolution. Evolution can generally be counted on to produce useful behavior. Trying to ‘arrest’ development at the age of, for example, 6 months, seems a quixotic quest.

    Don Stewart

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Don, you write: “Those who are trying to recover the very early stage before the Ego Boundary seem to me to be fighting against evolution.” Two replies:

    1. It is not about recovering anything, nor is there anything the “person” or “self” can do. The “self” is an ephemeral product of large, complex brains, a dreamer dreaming the dream of separation and control. It can no more recover anything than the character in your nightmare can wake itself up. The “self” is a recursive illusion. “This” — what is real —exists independently of any self. The self vaguely remembers and is intuitively longing for a return to the oneness that characterized its own absence, and is simultaneously terrified of that, since it would be the death of its self.

    2. Evolution is an aspect of the game of oneness — nothing expressing itself as everything. Evolution is merely the consequences of random variation, and the rules of the game (survival of what fits best in its environment) determine which evolutionary variations endure and which don’t. Many evolutionary changes that confer short-term fitness advantage are disastrous for long-term fitness (eg they are destabilizing and eventually destroy the environment to the point it can no longer sustain the destabilizing creature). The self may be one such evolutionary variation. Or it may be just an unintended consequence of large brains that do confer evolutionary advantage, a more-or-less useless appendage that will, one way or another, eventually be amputated.

  7. Don Stewart says:

    Dave
    You will of course follow your own path. I personally find the interdependent path more informative and healthier.

    For example, a new book, The Knowledge Illusion, has been published by Sloman and Fernbach. Endorsed by people like Steven Pinker, Barry Schwartz, and Paul Bloom. From the jacket cover: ‘Humans have built societies and technologies of extraordinary complexity, but most of us don’t even know how a pen or a toilet works….We’re constantly drawing on information and expertise stored outside our heads: in our bodies, our environment, our possessions, and the community with which we interact–and usually we don’t even realize we’re doing it.’

    Sapolsky talks about how we are sometimes able to do the harder thing, when it is the right thing to do.

    Put these two scientific findings together and we get a plan:
    *Organize a team that is able to bring knowledge to bear, that can generate new solutions, that can test the solutions and pick the winners, etc.
    *Then manipulate the environment to make it as easy as possible for people to do the thing which might appear to be harder, but is the right thing to do, and is now easier to do.

    I just don’t see how the notion of radical non-duality gets us anywhere practical. It reminds me of the story of Nagarjuna and some disciple meeting a man who says ‘Is there duality or non-duality?’ Nagarjuna and the disciple both burst out laughing.

    Anne Lamott, in her TED talk, says that ‘all truth is paradox’. Well…we are neither an independent self nor are we simply an amorphous part of the universe. If there is a problem here, it lies in the language and perhaps in habitual ways of thinking. I don’t disagree that most of the time, most people need reminding of their interdependence with the universe and its creatures. But getting carried away to the extreme of denying that one has some agency in the world is, to me, not very productive.

    Don Stewart

  8. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks Don. Either I’m really poor at explaining what radical non-duality’s message is, or else it’s more difficult to understand conceptually than I thought. So a couple more points in response, and then I think I’ll let it rest.

    You say I “will of course follow [my] own path”. The message of radical non-duality asserts that there is no me, no you, no choice, no free will, and no path. There is only what is apparently happening, including a bunch of illusory selves fooling themselves and each other into believing they can and do actually follow a path. The apparent character that I presume to inhabit will do what it will do, and “I” will attempt to rationalize those actions and decisions and beliefs, because that is what selves do. But I won’t be following my own path.

    You say the notion of radical non-duality doesn’t get us anywhere practical. You are absolutely correct. To the self, to the apparent separate person, the message of radical non-duality is completely useless, and without any hope. I don’t find the message compelling because it’s useful. I find it compelling because, at this point in my life at least, it seems to be elegantly, simply and utterly true. To me, it explains the nature of reality and what seemingly occurs in it, far better than any other scientific theory. I may abandon it in favour of some other theory or message tomorrow, but somehow I doubt I will. Like my worldview on collapse that followed my study of complexity, this seems like it might be the end of the line.

  9. Elli says:

    You wrote: “there really is no ‘me’ or ‘you’, or any separate anyone or anything, and hence no self or mind or soul or free will or control or choice or purpose or meaning or responsibility or time or space or death of anyone, magnifies this cognitive dissonance many-fold… I certainly seem to exist as a separate being with free will, yet I somehow now know I am not.”
    I have landed to same conclusion. However, this actually gives me sense of hope and purpose in my life. It gives me clear guidance on how to lead my life. If me and you are the-one-and-the-same and now-and-then is the same, we are actually part of a kind of infinite eternal organ. Everything that you live and you see is actually only an experience of yourself. Hurting or mistreating anyone that is perceived (by some) as ‘the other’ will only hurt me and yourself.

  10. David Beckemeier says:

    Don,

    “I” don’t know whether or not there is anything practical about it, “I” just think it would be cool to not have a self, they seem kind of a pain in the ass.

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